Swept Up in the Whirlwind Known as Michel Legrand | Modern Society of USA

Swept Up in the Whirlwind Known as Michel Legrand

Swept Up in the Whirlwind Known as Michel Legrand

I still hear Michel Legrand’s voice in my head: “Melissa! Hurry! Come!”

It was morning at the Music Box Theater, an early rehearsal during the first previews of his 2002 Broadway musical “Amour.” It was 10:01 a.m., and we were all moving slowly, nursing coffee cups in the palms of our hands. We had performed the show the night before and were still easing into the day.

Michel, the three-time Oscar-winning film composer who died on Saturday at 86, didn’t want to waste a minute. He pulled on my arm, speaking fast in heavily accented English, insisting that we must find a piano. As we scurried to the theater’s downstairs lobby, he told me he had written a new song for my character, Isabelle, and it would go into the show that evening. We flew down the gilded stairs, and I sat at his side at the piano.

What I remember most was the change in Michel’s body language as he shared his new music. Once at the piano, he slowed down and became absorbed. He would rush you as if to an American ice cream parlor on a crowded summer afternoon — and then offer you a slowly simmered French meal. I sat as he played, and marveled quietly when his hands turned the melody unexpectedly, a new minor key, a delicious twist that only he could have invented.

Of course the song, “Other People’s Stories,” with lyrics by Jeremy Sams, was beautiful, perhaps the best remembered in the show. And it was in “Amour” by 7 p.m. that night, typed hurriedly by a stage manager and taped into a magazine prop so I could literally read it as I sang in front of a thousand people.

This mix of wild energy and plaintive emotion governed Michel’s extravagantly well-lived life. Music was urgent to him. Well, almost everything was urgent to him — try hailing a New York taxi with him, oh!, the impatience — and then at the piano, he was transformed, calm.

It’s almost impossible to believe what a day with Michel could be like. Once, while we were recording in Paris, he suddenly asked if my husband, Patrick, and I would like to fly with him to Spain for a quick vacation. We shrugged and agreed. Only after we got to the airport did we realize that he really meant “fly with him” — he was the pilot of his own tiny plane, and flew us out through a rainstorm over the Pyrenees.

Landing for a picnic lunch, we had hardly caught our breath when he happily explained that he was due that night in Andorra for a concert with the pianist Chucho Valdes, and we had been drafted as his drivers. There we were in the front seat of a small French car, navigating our way across the terrifying corkscrew mountain roads, while Michel practiced piano in the back seat on a specially constructed wooden keyboard. (“Can you please go straighter!” he demanded of my poor husband.) The concert, when it happened, was a hurricane force of free music, with dueling pianists scatting on Michel’s classic “Watch What Happens,” stretching it to 15 ecstatic minutes.

Two years after “Amour,” he and I decided to make an album together, an ambitious symphonic recording eventually called Legrand Affair.” He came to Manhattan, and we spent a few days rehearsing his songs. Once we settled on a sensibility for the album, Michel went wild. One day in my apartment, he called the lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman on the telephone: “I need a new verse for Melissa! For ‘You Must Believe In Spring!’ Now, now! It’s too short! Too short!”

Mere hours later, a fax came through from the Bergmans, with a new verse, adapted to that post-9/11 moment. That was what Michel’s energy could produce in others.

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